Canine body language

Our dogs communicate a lot of information to us, but not in the way that we readily understand. Our primary form of communication is spoken word but our dogs do not have articulated vocal cords to support complex verbal language. Instead, body language is their primary way of communication. Here we offer a primer on what your dog is telling you based on what they communicate with their body. Like most things, we cannot provide hard and fast rules, but rather generalizations that can help guide your understanding.

Key Communication points

Eyes

Whatever your dog is looking at is what they are thinking about. Enlarged pupils, outside of when it is dark in the current environment, indicate arousal or over stimulation. Purposefully looking away from something is avoidance, lack of desire to engage.

Ears

Forward is generally predatory. Pinned back is generally defensive or fearful. Neutral is, well, neutral. 

Mouth

Lips pursed/puffed, pulled forward, is generally indicating and offensive consideration to bite. Corners of the mouth pulled back generally indicates emotional discomfort, and potentially defensive consideration to bite. A relaxed, slightly open mouth is neutral. A relaxed, closed mouth is a dog trying to get more information. They stop panting so that they can sniff, or hear better. 

Posture

Leaning toward indicates desire to engage. Leaning away indicates avoidance, or desire to escape. Piloerection (hackles), the hair along the spine standing up is an indication of arousal. We cannot determine the nature of the arousal without looking at the whole picture of the dog.

Tail

A high tail is assertive. A low tail is submissive. A tucked tail is emotional discomfort, often but not always, fear.

What is "Normal"?

For our purposes we are always looking for our dog to be calm and comfortable unless we are specifically working them against a stressor in a training exercise for the purposes of increasing their comfort and coping skills. Baseline, or normal, is going to be a little different for every dog. Just like people, some dogs are more timid, some are more boisterous, and some are aloof. On general principle, we are looking for the following ideal neutral body language from our dogs:

  • Relaxed head: Ears held naturally or back slightly. A relaxed mouth that is neither pursed or has the corners pulled back. Pupils not dilated excessively unless we are in a place where there is minimal lighting.

  • Relaxed muscles and posture: Tension in the muscles communicates tension in the mind. No piloerection.

  • Relaxed tail: Tail held in line with the body or below. Still or wagging in slow, long strokes from side to side.

  • Neutral distribution of weight: Neither overly forward or backward leaning or in their weight distribution.

We can get into all kinds of specifics about what different body language information tells us. But use the above as your guideline for what "baseline ideal" should look like. There will be times where our dogs will not look like this, because we are stressing them a bit on purpose. Remember that for the most part this should only happen in training exercises where we are able to limit options, guide choices, and control outcomes to make sure that our dogs learn the right things and come out of those situations better for it.